It took 47 minutes, but The Falcon and the Winter Soldier made good on showrunner Malcolm Spellman’s promise to make audiences cry during episode 5. Sam Wilson’s training montage with his vibranium shield packed a powerful emotional punch, delivered with precision due to the show’s success in exploring what it means to don the red, white, and blue. “Truth” fumbles a few of Falcon’s beloved supporting cast members, but the episode lays out a well-detailed and beautiful vision for what America can become and how we can get there. It’s a triumphant and uplifting episode that, even in these exceedingly dark times, makes you believe America’s best days can still be ahead of it.
That idea may sound like a delusional, out of touch dream, but The Falcon and the Winter Soldier makes its vision feel like a genuine possibility by refusing to handwave the other side of the argument. After taking back the shield from an unhinged John Walker (Wyatt Russell), Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) visits Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly) to learn the full story about his time as a super soldier. Bradley opens up about the horrific government sponsored experiments he and other black men went through. When some of those “test subjects” were taken prisoner, U.S. officials planned to bomb the POW camp they were held in. Isaiah snuck out, broke into the camp, and rescued the soldiers, but when he returned he was mutilated and imprisoned.
The story draws a clear and easy to understand parallel between Steve Rogers and Isaiah Bradley, vividly painting the idea that there are two Americas, one for white people and another for people of color. Steve Rogers made the same decision as Bradley when the 107th infantry was captured by HYDRA in The First Avenger, and he was hailed as a hero. Given everything the stars and stripes put Bradley through, his rage towards pro-American symbols is easy to relate to. If Sam had heeded Bradley’s advice and agreed that “No self respecting black man would ever want to be (Captain America,)” it would have been a decision audiences needed to respect. For Isaiah, America is no longer worth fighting for.
Isaiah’s counsel is heavy and complex, and “Truth” wisely dedicates its back half to allowing Sam to work through his thoughts and emotions on everything he’s learned. Sam Wilson has never been the type to give up, and he finds clarity and an alternative to Isaiah’s skepticism through community. He calls his neighbors to help refurbish his family’s broken boat, tearing off the rotting parts and replacing them with new ones. Bucky (Sebastian Stan) shows up to lend a hand as well, and before long it’s ready to set sail. With determination, friendship, and community, they tear down the old and rebuild it into something better.
If not for a tremendous script, those construction scenes could have dragged despite their metaphorical resonance. Instead, they’re filled with Marvel’s signature comedy, and the levity heightens the emotional resonance rather than watering it down. Mackie and Stan’s adversarial relationship in prior episodes was hit and miss, but their newfound friendship feels much more natural. Whether Bucky is flirting with Sam’s sister Sarah (Adepero Oduye) or guilting Sam into letting him crash on his couch, the synergy between the two has never been better.
Their friendship (even if they hesitate to call it that) brings out a happier side of Bucky that is delightful to see, even if the story fails to create dramatic tension in getting him there. Bucky has spent the series not knowing who he is and being afraid that the answer is a killer, but he never really pushed those boundaries far enough to create suspense. Sebastian Stan’s performance has done most of the heavy lifting on that front, and Bucky’s therapeutic conversation with Sam could have been more impactful if his merciful nature was more concealed.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s promotional materials were filled with images of Sam carrying the shield, but his decision to take on the mantle works more successfully than Bucky’s arc of self-discovery because the story gave him every reason to deny it. Even if there never was truly a question as to whether Sam would accept the duty passed to him, the road that led him there did a great job of building to his emotional training montage. Spellman’s callbacks to previous MCU Cap stories have worked throughout the series, but hearing Sam tell his nephews “All day!” got me teary-eyed.
Sam and Bucky earn their pay as the series headliners, but “Truth” also gives John Walker (Wyatt Russell) another excellent scene that highlights why this anti-hero is so compelling. Walker is given an other than honorable discharge from the military and stripped of the Captain America title, but he provides a stirring speech on Capitol Hill that correctly places the blame for the Flag Smasher’s murder at the government’s feet. “You made me,” he tells officials, seething as they refuse to hear his side of the story. Even as he slips further into vengeful delusion, Walker makes thought provoking points that cannot be dismissed.
“Truth” does stumble twice, rushing the end of Zemo’s arc and haphazardly turning Karli (Erin Kellyman) further into the darkness. Daniel Bruhl’s Zemo has been an utter joy to watch, and having him go quietly with the Dora Milaje to the Raft prison is an anti-climactic end to this part of his story. Karli and the Flag Smashers have consistently been Falcon’s biggest weakness, but her choice to hire Batroc to assault the Global Repatriation Council undermines the slight redemptive arc she had in episode 4. Just when she was inching towards becoming sympathetic, she dives further off the deep end for no ostensible reason. Her story has been so mishandled that I’m indifferent to how it will end.
Even so, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s penultimate episode is one of its best yet. Anthony Mackie’s Falcon has never been more engaging, standing as a beacon of hope in a world devoid of it. The season (series?) finale is sure to thrill, but “Truth” feels like its true emotional climax.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier Episode 5 Awards and Additional Thoughts
MVP – Sam Wilson: It’s about time The Falcon and the Winter Soldier let Sam fly. He’d been reduced to a supporting character through the series’ middle act, and I started to have doubts about whether he could carry his own Marvel stories. “Truth” proved that he can. While his training montage wasn’t quite as powerful as his iconic “On your left” before the battle against Thanos, it came darn close. Sam is the type of person everyone should strive to become: empathetic, resolute, and genuine. He’s an easy choice for episode 5’s award, and now he’s a two-time MVP.
“Get the Bag” Actor of the Series – Julia Louis-Dryfus: Iconic actors making big bank off easy roles is nothing new in the MCU, but Julia Louis-Dryfus’ brief appearance as Valentina Allegra de Fontaine is up there. Her role will be expanded in Black Widow and presumably other movies to come, but here she drops John a mysterious business card and disappears. Other notable “Get the Bag” MCU performances include Anthony Hopkins as Odin, Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce, Kurt Russell (Wyatt’s dad) as Ego, and Glenn Close as Nova Prime. Michael Keaton’s Vulture is too good to be included in this group, but shout out to him as well.
Who Won the Episode? Sam or Bucky – Sam: When you’re the MVP, you win the head-to-head. It’s that simple. I do, however, have one Bucky note that couldn’t make the main review. I’m a little disappointed in his performance in the Walker fight! He’s got super soldier serum and a vibranium arm, but John would have killed him with ease if Sam wasn’t there to pick him up. It’s a tough look for Bucky. Everyone has a bad day, but at least put up a fight.
Have You Ever Seen Zemo and Loki in the Same Room Together? His arrest at the hands of the Dora felt like Zemo’s series farewell, and a performance that great deserves a moment to appreciate and reflect upon it. Zemo was always an interesting MCU villain, but The Falcon and the Winter Soldier took him to the next level by transforming him into Eastern Europe’s version of Loki. Like Loki, Zemo is a sympathetic villain in his cinematic debut who transforms into an almost hero over the course of a few stories. They’re both mass murderers, yet they’re still so easy to love. Zemo had a few moments of ruthlessness in this series, but overall he was far more hero than villain. If he really wanted to avoid arrest, he wouldn’t have been waiting for Bucky at the Sokovia memorial. This is a guy who has found peace, and I expect to see him pull a Loki and appear in various Phase 4 stories and beyond. His relocation to the Raft is a clear setup for a Thunderbolts story.
Sixth (Wo)man of the Episode – Sarah Wilson: Adepero Oduye’s Sarah Wilson doesn’t get a ton of time in the spotlight, but she is so charming. She’s such a colorful character, and her dialogue is superbly written. Her banter with Sam doesn’t miss, and hopefully we’ll get to spend more time with her in MCU projects to come.
Comeback Player of the Year – John Walker: John Walker got discharged from the military and cast aside by the public that once adored him, and what’s the first thing he does? Grab a hammer and forge a new shield. “Time to go to work” he says, undeterred and ready to take revenge on the people who killed his best friend. I’m sure he’ll have revenge planned for Sam and Bucky as well, but come on! You’ve got to admire the guy’s ability to bounce back from a devastating L.